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Pittsburgh Artist of the Week: Horace Whisper & the Empty Hand

Horace Whisper & the Empty Hand make the kind of music where the words really matter. Fronted by songwriter and storyteller Kirby Jayes, the band’s surreal Americana sound is built to bolster the lyrics. Their new song “Play the Dead” tells the story of a musician whose tastes evolve as they bottom out on their dream.

Horace Whisper & the Empty Hand recently spoke with WYEP's Joey Spehar.

Tosh Chambers (he, bass)
Jarrett Krause (he, sax)
Kirby Jayes (they, guitar, vox)
Al Ebeling (they, drums)

What’s your musical history up to this point?

We’ve all been active in music around town for a long time, but Horace Whisper started coming together in mid 2021. Jarrett and I were neighbors at the time and I knew him from organizing shows with his old band, Soda Club. I had taken a few years away from being in a band, during which time I did a lot of home recording and teaching. We started getting together to play without any real expectations, which gradually grew into sessions with other people. We spent at least a year letting things coalesce before even putting a name on the group. After another year or so, we stabilized into the current lineup of me, Jarrett Krause (sax), Al Ebeling (drums), who I had played with in our last band, Birthrates, and Tosh Chambers (bass), also formerly of Soda Club.

That patient approach has really been the key for us. In the past I’ve always rushed to play shows, rushed to record, rushed to get out there and put something in front of people. This time around has been about letting the music tell us when it’s ready. This past summer we recorded the songs that would become Cowboy 100 with our friends Noah Carlson and David Beck. We released the EP this March alongside a couple of lyric videos by our collaborator Cullyn Murphy. Currently we’re scheming on the next thing.

How do you describe your sound? 

My wife says that my whole deal is ‘surreal Americana,’ which is fair I think, but that’s not something you can really say to someone and expect them to have any kind of reference point. I think that in an aesthetic sense we fit into the alt/cosmic country or no depression box, somewhere between Magnolia Electric Company and Sturgill Simpson. The most important thing is that we’re a band where the words matter. Everything in the song exists to bolster the lyric.

Tell us more about the song "Play The Dead." What inspired you to write it and what does it mean to you? 

I don’t really write autobiographical songs, but this one is as grounded in fact as anything. I did really go on one of my first tours with my friend Linden and shoot airsoft guns in his Mom’s yard (thanks Diane). And Linden and I were still playing our songs together years later at Taco Dan’s in Granville, Ohio, collecting tips and getting heckled by the hippie proprietor. That existential nadir was very real, but once a line hits the page it’s something that should live and breathe on its own. Things should go in whatever direction the story needs. In this case that’s a journey through the years where the narrator eventually becomes the old guy at the bar, assuring the kid playing that “I’m on your side, I just want to hear something I like” as he begs for a Dead song. It’s about bottoming out on your dream and what you do next.

What Dead song would Horace Whisper & the Empty Hand play if they were in the business of playing Grateful Dead songs?

“Ripple” or “Touch of Grey,” probably. Maybe “Eyes of the World.”

What was the first album that really changed your life? 

It’s hard to identify the first, that was probably Back in Black or something. But I want to talk about Ramshackle Glory’s “Live the Dream.” I saw them play when I was about 16 at a Champaign, Illinois house venue called Garfield’s Garden (Aaron, if you’re out there, thank you). That record absolutely changed the way I thought about songwriting and what kind of subjects and storytelling felt possible, especially in the DIY landscape that I had access to at the time. They were the first band I loved where my reaction wasn’t ‘God, I wish I could do that’ but ‘I could totally do that.’ That experience did lead pretty directly to the taco shop scene described in “Play the Dead”, so there are definitely pros and cons. But we are older and wiser now and I still listen to “Live the Dream.”

Who are some other Pittsburgh artists you think more people should listen to?  

Kirby: We must mention our friends in String Machine and vireo, without whom it’s easy to say that HW would not exist. David from String Machine was indispensable as a producer on Cowboy 100, and Chris from vireo is responsible for the banjo on all the songs. They’re both superb songwriters and have really unique sonic visions.

I’d also like to shout out our weird-country comrades in Westinghouse Atom Smasher. They are doing something I’ve never heard before. I love their recent single release of "Green Angel" b/w "50ft Woman." 'Horror movie horrors, they keep on coming, but it’s never what you want, like a 50 foot woman.' Incredible.

Al: More people should be listening to Rex Tycoon, Lem, 7D, and everything coming out on the Astral Research label.

Jarrett: For years and years I’ve attested that Pittsburgh’s most talented songwriter is Shay Park. Their music is pure poetry; endlessly quotable, catchy, and evocative. You will literally laugh and cry. Also, Rave Ami recently became my favorite face-melters in the bizz, and their new rock album No Arc is the definition of “all killer, no filler”! But when it comes to sheer uniqueness of sound, Sneeze Awfull has captured something wildly special. Ethereal vocals, beats, boops, and cello? Nobody does it like them, especially not in Pittsburgh. Lastly, I feel like everyone should see a Heading North show. Their sheer pop-punk energy is unrivaled… I get tired just watching them do their thing.

Any other super interesting things about you we should know?

It’s only interesting in the most macabre sense, but something about me is that, as an American, my taxes are being used to obliterate people in Gaza right now. It is happening as I am writing this and later as you are reading it. These are people who, for the most part, have lived their entire lives in a prison camp. Anyone in American politics who could exercise power over the situation has demonstrated nothing but contempt for the people of Palestine and the Americans who stand with them.

I do not believe that John Fetterman, Bob Casey, or Joe Biden think that the life of a Palestinian has value. If they did, they would not behave this way. If they did, they would stop supplying bombs to kill children. If they did, they would not use every appendage of American power to shield Israel from the consequences of their genocidal campaign. The people who beg for your vote will spit in your face and call you a terrorist as soon as they believe they can get away with it. I hope we will learn that lesson and do what we can.

Learn more about Horace Whisper & the Empty Hand:

Joey Spehar is a Pittsburgh native who started as a volunteer D.J. at WYEP, fresh out of college in 2006. He took on any job they’d let him do like editing audio, engineering remote broadcasts, and shoveling snow.